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Who Uses Out-of-Office Benefits More?

Recent research shows men use flexible, out-of-office benefits more than women. Experts say this points to a need for employers to get rid of old stereotypes and do a better job meeting all workers' non-work needs.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013
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Recent evidence showing women use fewer out-of-office benefits than men points to an overall and overriding point, experts say: Work/life isn't just about women and kids anymore.

A March survey by the Washington-based American Psychological Association's Center for Organizational Excellence not only finds the majority of workers stressed out, stuck in their jobs, underpaid and not listened to when it comes to their non-work needs -- it also finds only 37 percent of women regularly use employee benefits designed to help them meet demands outside the office, compared to 42 percent of men.

Just as striking and somewhat counter to the prevailing perception that working women/moms need flexibility the most, the APA's Work and Well-Being Survey finds only 38 percent of women regularly use flexible-work arrangements, compared to 42 percent of men.

At the same time, one-third of all working Americans (33 percent) say work interfering during personal or family time has a significant impact on their level of work stress and one in four report that job demands interfere with their ability to fulfill family or home responsibilities.

"This should be a huge wake-up call for employers that workplace flexibility isn't just for women and [their] family demands," says David Ballard, head of the APA's Center for Organizational Excellence. "It's more of a human issue now."

According to the survey of 1,501 U.S. working adults, he says, "more men used the flexibility and tapped into resources to help their non-work demands, such as elder care and child care, but also [took more advantage of] resources the employer provides to help them make arrangements or get discounts for outside services -- such as fitness facilities and dry cleaning."

So, could this just mean fewer women feel emboldened to ask for such help? Ballard cautions against "reading too much into this one particular survey," though he does acknowledge other research points to the fact that "women do tend to feel penalized if they tap into those resources."

By the same token, though, he adds, "we also have studies showing men feel more penalized making use of flexible or work/life benefits typically thought of as for women."

Gender nuances and differences aside, he says, this study and others before it point to a growing need for employers to take more seriously all the life demands of all workers. He cites an earlier APA study showing the top two reasons people stay with an employer are enjoying what they do and having a job that fits well with their life demands.

Keys to improving employers' overall work/life outreach, says Ballard, include better needs assessments going in, better communication vehicles highlighting what the company offers, and better training programs for both managers and their more flexible workers.

Especially in light of the recent Yahoo! and Best Buy announcements that their organizations would be discontinuing all remote-work arrangements, he says, "rather than simply eliminating [such] options, an employer can set clear expectations about performance, ensure work-flex arrangements are a good fit for a particular individual or job function, and provide the necessary resources to keep remote or flex workers engaged and productive."

"When it comes to evaluating how well an employee is performing on the job, actual outcomes are a better measure than 'face time' [anytime]," he says.

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Fortunately, says Rose Stanley, work/life practice leader at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based WorldatWork, many organizations' senior managers are beginning to "understand [that] it doesn't matter your gender or your generation -- that flexible-work options, including telework, are an expressed desire of all employees."

Trying to ascertain just where different demographic groups fall on the work/life-needs-and-satisfaction spectrum, she says, is difficult because different studies question different types of workers and have differing definitions for flexible work. Some include flex-time in the definition, for instance, while some don't. There are also large companies offering benefits through entire, much-more-robust work/life programs than smaller companies do or can.

What's important for employers, HR executives and benefits professionals to keep in mind, says Stanley, is that flexible-work arrangements, across the board, do make sense for business, and what they're putting into place "will really make a difference for employees in terms of higher productivity, increased engagement, lower turnover and enhanced loyalty."

Training, she agrees, is key. In WorldatWork research, she says, "what we find all the time [when studying flexible benefits] is if you don't train your managers and you don't train those employees who are using these benefits" -- for instance, on the use of technology needed for remote work or ways to stay disciplined and connected to the organization -- that often spells the difference between success and failure. "Training," says Stanley, "does seem to be a tipping point."

"Clearly," she says, "it's starting to catch on that [the need for better balance between work and life] doesn't apply to just the mom, nor does it apply to just the dad. Many employees, male or female, young or old, may have elder-care issues too, or some are interested in giving back to the community by volunteering ... .

"Time," she says, "does have a currency. It does have a value that people are looking for."

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